Cantor hints highway bill deal might not be reached by deadline

House and Senate negotiators trying to agree to a long-term highway bill might need to work past June 30 to get there, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) hinted Friday.

In a colloquy with House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Cantor said he is mindful of the June 30 expiration of federal highway programs, but said twice that Republicans stand at the ready to make sure there is no interruption of these programs. 

"We're prepared to make sure that there is no stoppage of transportation programming and funding, all the while desiring a much longer-term solution to the problem," Cantor said.

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Later in his conversation with Hoyer, he added, "I'm hopeful that the conference committee can come to a solution prior to the expiration of the authorizing language in place right now, but again, very mindful, we don't want to allow for any shutdown of any program at the end of this month."

Cantor's comments suggest both that negotiators will not reach a deal by June 30 and that some short-term agreement to extend funding could be reached.

As he has before, Cantor indicated that there is no agreement yet because Republicans are less eager to spend the amount of money that Democrats want to spend.

"The problem remains … just not enough money to address all the things that the country is experiencing in terms of the needs for roads and infrastructure repair, as well as needed expansion," he said. "We all are mindful of the limited resources that are available to address these needs."

Hoyer replied that the Senate-passed bill would likely pass if it were brought up in the House, but Cantor did not respond. The Senate bill, S. 1813, would spend $109 billion over the next two years, and was approved in a bipartisan vote in the Senate.

The House, in contrast, has only approved two temporary extensions and has included language requiring approval of the Keystone pipeline. One of these would extend highway programs through the end of September, an option that could be explored if no agreement can be reached by June 30.

Hoyer used his regular discussion with Cantor to warn that there are just a few dozen workdays left in the House before the November elections, and that major issues are coming up, such as whether to let the Bush administration tax levels expire and what to do on payroll taxes, the Alternative Minimum Tax and the debt limit.

"We need to address those; hopefully we need to address them in a bipartisan way," Hoyer said. "Because if we do not address them, we will put the economy at continuing risk."

Cantor replied that members do need to focus on these issues in the months ahead, but lamented that the two parties have been unable reach agreement in two key areas — healthcare and taxes.

Hoyer also asked Cantor how to handle expiring low interest rates on student loans, which will jump to 6.8 percent for federally backed loans on July 1. But Cantor said he and other Republicans offered bipartisan proposals to get around this problem.

One of these options would increase federal workers' contribution to retirement, a plan Hoyer said he opposes. The other would pay for the lower rate by limiting the length of the in-school interest subsidy and revise the tax treatment of Medicaid providers.

Hoyer also pressed Cantor again for the GOP decision to pass appropriations bills for 2013 that spend less on discretionary items than was agreed by both parties last year. But when Hoyer asked how the House might square this plan with the Democratic Senate, Cantor said there is nothing to negotiate with in the upper chamber so far.

"I would suggest turning attention to the Senate that hasn't even begun considering its appropriations bills," Cantor said. "To suggest that we would come to an agreement with the Senate — I think, you know, the Senate's got to really start to do its work as far as the appropriations process is concerned."

Republicans and Democrats in the House have often criticized the Senate for not being as productive as the House, and in response to Cantor's comment, Hoyer replied with a laugh, "I don't have any rebuttal to that so I will yield back my time."